Sunday, June 15, 2008

Davis and Benn

This business with David Davis resigning to re-fight his seat on a single issue (and the damage this could do to the Tories) puts me in mind of the way that the more opposition-minded Labour MPs - in the 1980s - were much keener on a variation of direct democracy than any group of MPs that ever led a victorious election campaign.

I wrote a post about it here a while ago. This implicit rejection of representative government was, I believe, easily the biggest mistake that the Labour left made in the 1980s. The unpopular policies, the wrong ones, the poor presentation, the inept campaigns, the tactical mistakes - they were all a consequence of the huge tactical victory that opposition-minded activists enjoyed when they pushed for MPs to be directly accountable to their CLPs on detailed matters of policy.

That the Conservatives generally seem to be increasingly captivated by the idea of plebiscites can only be a good thing.

Now this, from Friday's Guardian letters page:

In a democracy members of parliament are accountable to the people from whom their authority comes and to whom they are ultimately accountable.

Apart from the broad political choices that have to be made in a general election, issues sometimes arise where it is right and proper that MPs should take the opportunity of consulting their own constituents formally on major questions.

Legislation that would allow people to he imprisoned on suspicion without charge for 42 days repeals Magna Carta, and could easily be extended to cover anyone whom it was claimed might threaten national security.

The parliamentary vote in support of this was only won after the whips had imposed the most rigid three-line whip upon Labour MPs who, in a free vote, would almost certainly have defeated it.

David Davis's decision to take this issue back to his own constituents and ask for their support for his stand against this law is absolutely right.

Cynicism about politics is now widespread, and the Haltemprice byelection, fought on the question of civil liberties, will restore public confidence in parliament, which increasingly seems separated from the people it was elected to serve.
Tony Benn

I've boldened the bits that are, to me, obviously wrong. The first two bits would not, I think, make a satisfactory sentence in an undergraduate essay entitled "What should an MP do, and how should s/he do it?" It would need some further qualification, I think?

The third bit is so plainly obviously wrong, I really can't believe that anyone would seriously write it down.

Also, before Benn descended into this madness, he used to have a reputation as a competent minister. As Hopi points out, he was a minister in the government that really did repeal Magna Carta, but he didn't resign then, did he?

All of this reawakens an old conspiracy theory that I used to nurse...


mikeovswinton said...

Paulie; I won't get into the Magna Carta issue - I read an article that pointed certain bits of it that were clearly anti-semitic if the quotes were accurate, and if I got it right there was quite a bit in it about "kydells". Forget that. What struck me was that unless the headache I have is confusing, isn't the first bit of Tony Benn's letter that you have highlighted a fairly obvious tautology?

Tom Freeman said...

I've boldened the bits that are, to me, obviously wrong

Including "Tony Benn"...

mikeovswinton said...

My bad head did cause a few blips earlier. But one other point; my understanding is that the Tories were as heavily whipped on 42 days as Labour. Was Davis's resignation caused because, as a man of principle, he would have wanted his fellow Tory MPs to have the right to exercise their conscience on this major issue of principle? I assume he would be completely against the use of whips on this kind issue of high principle to engineer a defeat of the government for party advantage. Or maybe I've missed the point here.

stephen said...

In what way is Benn's opinion that In a democracy members of parliament are accountable to the people from whom their authority comes and to whom they are ultimately accountable 'obviously wrong'? Seems pretty obviously right to me. Or do you think that their authority derives from some silly cunt wearing a crown?

Paulie said...

Well, there's the tautology that Mike has found. And are MPs accountable to the people who voted for them? Would Burke or Paine agree? Or Mill? Or Schumpeter? Or anyone that has thought about how representation works?

Politicians are, of course, repsonsible for ensuring that they promote what they beleive to be the best interests of their constituents. They are expected to apply their conciences, and offer some consistancy with the lines that their party takes - as they were elected largely because of the colour rosette that they wore during the election campaign.

But 'accountable'? I think not. One of New Labour's greatest failing is their over-valuing of 'accountability'. It's one of those 'yay' words - like 'meritocracy' - it allows fairly sloppy thinking to go unanswered.

Benn has always been a fan of the mandated politican. It destroyed Labour in the 1980s and I hope it will do the same to the Tories over the next few years.